Interview: Costume Designer Colleen Atwood of “Into the Woods”

Posted on March 23, 2015 at 3:24 pm

Copyright Disney Studios 2014
Copyright Disney Studios 2014

Stephen Sondheim’s dark take on fairy tales, Into the Woods, out on DVD/Blu-Ray this week, includes Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick, Johnny Depp, and Chris Pine, but equally important is the contribution from another superstar, three-time Oscar winning costume designer Colleen Atwood. I am a huge fan of her work and loved talking to her, but the most exciting part was when she got off the call for a moment to tell someone to “try the other pair of shoes,” and I got to imagine an actress all decked out in a fabulous costume, as Ms. Atwood presided over the finishing touches.

Copyright Disney Studios 2014
Copyright Disney Studios 2014

“If you know it’s Sondheim, you know it’s not going to be what anyone expects,” she said, “maybe a sideways look at the fairy tale. You see what’s behind the fairy tale, which is what makes it a unique experience.” She loves working with Meryl Streep, who plays the witch in the film and transforms from a hag to a beauty. “When she is the Dark Witch, her costume is a collapsed version of the big blue witch, which was her ideal of beauty and loveliness. I wanted to do two things with her costume. I wanted to tie her in with the trees, the way the bark is tortured and gnarled. So I used strips of really fine leather applied on chiffon and twisted it the way tree bark grows in twisted formations, and used the same technique on the blue dress even though it’s three times bigger and with different materials, satin ribbons and things, used the same shape but applied it on a different way.”

Copyright Disney Studios 2014
Copyright Disney Studios 2014

For Johnny Depp’s Big Bad Wolf, she took his suggestion. “I wanted a wolf that wasn’t all fur, and the original idea for the vibe of the costume as a zoot suit came from Johnny’s take on the music.  He wanted a kind of Tex Avery wolf so I took a zoot suit approach to the shape of the costume and then I drew wolf fur on it and had all that embroidered.  Then instead of fur for the collar and tail I used a thread-tying technique that used to be used for wig-making in the 1920’s for flapper wigs.  I’ve always thought it was an amazing thing.  It was sort of a weird combination of 20’s and 30’s coming together.  Johnny has a lot of panache, that’s for sure.”

Atwood is famous for creating and adapting her own textiles, so I asked her if she had done that for this film.  “Absolutely,” she said. “There’s so much craft in this film, probably the most amount of craft I’ve done in a movie.”  Because most characters only had one or two costumes, she had the chance to use hand embroidery and a lot of textile technique and combining of textiles “to get the kind of woodcut effect I wanted.”

She especially enjoyed working with the prince characters. “I thought they should be sexy and romantic, but they should also be bad boys — which is very attractive!  So I took the element of the biker bad boy with Billy Magnuson’s character, the prince who loves Rapunzel, and took the almost-but-not-quite Elvis approach with Chris Pine, who plays the prince who loves Cinderella.  And they were both so funny they both took it to another level. Usually, it’s the girls you’re having all the fun with but it was a hoot to do these prince costumes.”

Copyright Disney Studios 2014
Copyright Disney Studios 2014


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Behind the Scenes Interview

Into the Woods

Posted on December 24, 2014 at 5:55 pm

Copyright Disney Studios 2014
Copyright Walt Disney Pictures 2014

This is not a Disney movie. Oh, well, yes, it is a Disney movie in the sense that it is produced by Disney, which is the only possible explanation for the PG rating (and the slightly sweetened storyline), but this is not the happily ever after fairy tale story time we are used to from Disney. You didn’t remember that in the original version of Cinderella the mean stepsisters sliced off pieces of their feet to try to fit into the slipper the prince was using to find his true love?  That’s because it was, well, cut out of the classic Disney animated version as well as most contemporary printed versions.  But it’s back here, in a complicated, challenging retelling of classic fairy tales where having your wish granted may leave you worse off than you were before.

Parents looking for a movie for the family for the holidays need to know that this is not this year’s “Frozen.”  It is a sung-through (almost no spoken dialogue) and there are characters who are injured and killed, including parents of young children. It is a darker take on fairy tales.  The characters struggle with the consequences of their wishes and of the actions they take when they want something desperately. They lie and they steal to get what they want. And they learn that no one is all bad or all good. “Though scary is exciting, nice is different from good.”

Writer James Lapine says the idea came from a conversation with his frequent collaborator, Stephen Sondheim, who wanted his next project to be about a quest. Lapine wanted to write something about fairy tales.  And so “Into the Woods” became that project, a mash-up of many different classic fairy tales with a witch, and giants, and a dark place where the paths are not clear, a place for people who are yearning for something and willing to take some risks.  “I wish,” they all sing as the movie begins.  Cinderella, with her evil stepmother (Christine Baranski) and mean girl stepsisters, wishes to go to the festival held by the royal family.  The baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) wish for a child.  A boy named Jack (Daniel Huttlestone, who has a voice like a bell), wishes his milky-white cow would give milk and his mother (Tracy Ullman) wishes they had money so they could have enough to eat.  And a girl in a red riding hood (the very gifted Lilla Crawford) wants some bread to take to her grandmother (and some pastries for herself).

And there’s a witch (Meryl Streep) who wishes for something, too.  She tells the baker and his wife that she will remove the curse that is keeping them from having a child if they will bring her four things: a cow white as milk, hair gold as corn, a cape red as blood, and a slipper pure as gold.  The problem is that all of these items are essential props in other stories.  If the baker and his wife take them, then Jack will not have a cow to trade for magic beans, Rapunzel will not have hair to let down so her prince can climb the tower, Red Riding Hood will not be able to go to her grandmother’s house, and Cinderella’s prince will not be able to find her.  What happens to wishes when they cancel each other out? When one person’s wish is another’s nightmare? And when the handsome prince explains that he was raised to be Charming, but not necessarily Sincere? Is there any good in being good?

The characters explore themes of innocence, and the competing urges to protect children by keeping them from knowing about the dangers of the world and to protect them by making sure they understand those dangers. “How do you say it will all be all right/When you know that it might not be true?”

Even the witch tries to protect her (stolen) daughter from the scary world outside her tower. But children do not listen. They will grow up and want to leave, even if it means learning “secrets I never wanted to know,” as Red Riding Hood sings thoughtfully, after she is rescued from the belly of the wolf. On the other hand “children will listen,” sometimes when we don’t want them to, so we need to be careful in setting a good example and in taking care of them. And somehow, it is in taking care of them we become most fully ourselves. “Fairy tales understood us before we understood them,” we are told. This exploration of fairy tale themes shows us that they still understand us better than we understand ourselves.

Parents should know that this film includes fairy tale/fantasy peril and violence with some characters injured and killed (including two parents of children), some disturbing images and troubling situations, mild sexual references and non-explicit situations with some kissing.

Family Discussion:  What is your favorite fairy tale and why?  In the song where everyone blames someone else, who is right?

If you like this, try:  Revisionist fairy tales “Ella Enchanted,” “Stardust,” and “Ever After” and, for more from Sondheim, Six by Sondheim and Sondheim: The Birthday Concert

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Based on a book Based on a play Fantasy Musical

December 2014: A Lot of Oscar Hopefuls and Holiday Blockbusters

Posted on December 1, 2014 at 7:00 am

Happy December! Everyone is busy in December, but make time now on your schedule for some of the year’s biggest films, including Oscar hopefuls, blockbusters, and even a couple of possible surprises. (NOTE: As typical at this time of year, release dates may vary in different cities.)

December 5

Copyright 2014 Fox Searchlight
Copyright 2014 Fox Searchlight

“Wild,” with producer Reese Witherspoon, based on Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, a book so gripping and inspirational that Oprah brought back her book club to make sure the five women in the world who had not already bought it would go out and get it. When everything in her life fell apart, Strayed went for a walk, more than a thousand miles. Witherspoon might find herself up for an Oscar competing with the other film she produced this year, “Gone Girl.”

December 12

“Exodus: Gods and Kings” Christian Bale plays Moses in this Biblical epic, directed by Ridley Scott with the grandeur and power he brought to “Gladiator.” He’s got stars who can make that kind of scale work, including Joel Edgerton as Rhamses, along with Ben Kingsley, John Turturro, and Israeli star Hiam Abbass.

“Inherent Vice” The very cerebral Paul Thomas Anderson directs, based on a book by the sometimes impenetrably cerebral Thomas Pynchon, and the trailer makes it look like a darkly comic crime farce along the lines of Elmore Leonard. The sensational cast includes Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon (again), Jena Malone, Josh Brolin, Maya Rudolph, and Owen Wilson.

Copyright Paramount 2014
Copyright Paramount 2014

“Top Five” Chris Rock wrote, directed, and stars in this fictionalized story of a comic actor with a career crisis. This one has a ton of great buzz coming off the festival circuit and could be one of the brightest spots this month.

December 19

Copyright Disney 2014
Copyright Disney 2014

“Annie” Disney’s remake is based on the original film, based on the Broadway musical, based on the Depression-era Harold Gray comic strip. The cast singing their hearts about about the hard-knock life and the sun coming out tomorrow includes Jamie Foxx, Cameron Diaz, Rose Byrne, Bobby Cannavale, and, in the title role Quvenzhané Wallis of “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”

“Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb” We’ll all feel a special pang to see Robin Williams in one of his last roles as Teddy Roosevelt and Mickey Rooney as a museum guard in this third of the series about museum exhibits that come alive at night. Joining the cast is “Downton Abbey’s” Dan Stevens as Sir Galahad, and Ben Kingsley as King Tut. Returning favorites include bickering buddies Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan, Rami Malek as Ahkmenrah, and Ben Stiller both as the harried former guard who learned the secret in the first film and as…I’ll just let that be a surprise.

“Mr. Turner” Another festival favorite is this Mike Leigh film about the brilliant, influential, and occasionally controversial British artist J.M.W. Turner. Anything from Mike Leigh is worth seeing, especially with Leigh regulars Timothy Spall (long overdue for the kind of showy lead role he gets here) and Lesley Manville.

December 25

“Unbroken” The closest to a lock for Oscar nominations is Angelina Jolie’s film based on Laura Hillenbrand’s blockbuster best-seller, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. It is the stunning real-life story of a man who was an Olympic athlete and then served in WWII, where he was shot down by the Japanese, survived weeks lost at sea with no food or water, only to be captured and imprisoned by the Japanese and subjected to the most brutal conditions. This may be the first time you hear the name of star Jack O’Connell. It will not be the last.

“Into the Woods” Stephen Sondheim’s complex meditation on fairy tales and other stories we tell children is pretty meta on stage. I’m betting this version from Disney will have a little more fairy dust. I know it has an all-star cast, including Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Chris Pine, Anna Kendrick, and Johnny Depp.

“Big Eyes” It’s hard to believe that strange paintings of children with enormous eyes were briefly insanely popular in the 1970’s. It’s even stranger to find out that they were not the work of the artist whose name was so attached to them that he was a joke in Woody Allen’s “Sleeper.” He in fact put his name on the paintings created by his wife. Who better to tell this strange tale than Tim Burton, and who better to star than Christoph Waltz and Amy Adams?

“Selma” One of the most important moments in American history is brought to screen by the brilliant director Ava DuVernay, with David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo as the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King in the story of the march for civil rights that made it impossible to continue to ignore the virulent racism of the Jim Crow era and led to sweeping federal legislation. Oh, and Oprah’s in it, too. Look for some Oscar nominations for this one.

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